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Young people failed by approach to mental health in secondary schools across England

Wednesday, 30 June 2021 Mind

Too many young people in secondary schools across England are being denied vital mental health support at school and by mental health services, affecting their ability to participate in education. 

Mind’s inquiry into secondary education and mental health - ‘Not Making the Grade: why our approach to mental health at secondary school is failing young people’ - released today (Wednesday 30 June) revealed that almost all (96%) of young people surveyed across England, reported that their mental health had affected their schoolwork at some point.

As part of its inquiry, Mind consulted with over 2,870 young people, parents/caregivers of young people affected by mental health problems, mental health professionals and school staff across England. The charity found that nearly seven in ten (68%) young people reported being absent from school due to their mental health. Some young people also reported having their mental health problems treated as bad behaviour, rather than being supported to address underlying issues. Some reported being sent into isolation, physically restrained, or excluded from school for this reason.

To help support young people through secondary school, and beyond, Mind has joined forces, with Young Minds to #FundTheHubs - calling on the UK Government to invest in support hubs, which provide easy-to-access, early support for young people aged 11-25 in their communities from a range of trained professionals.

Mind is also calling for an urgent re-think of the way that schools respond to young people experiencing behavioural problems because of mental health problems and trauma.

Other findings from the inquiry into mental health and secondary schools revealed:

• Three in five (62%) young people received no support from school for their mental health.

• Nearly half (48%) of young people had been disciplined at school for behaviour that was related to their mental health. In the most severe cases, young people reported being physically restrained and put in isolation away from friends and peers.

• One in four school staff (25%) were aware of a student being excluded from school because of their mental health.

• More than one in six (17%) young men with mental health problems had been excluded (either permanently or temporarily) in comparison to fewer than one in ten (7%) young women.

Mind also explored to the link between racism and mental health. The 70% of young people who experienced racism in school told us that their experience had impacted their mental wellbeing.

This has prompted calls from the charity for the introduction of legislation to require schools to report incidents of racism.

Zoe, 21, from Southampton has previously been diagnosed with anxiety, PTSD and depression. She is campaigning alongside others at Mind, to ensure that other young people are not treated in the same way she was at Secondary School. Zoe said:

“Mental health problems made my life extremely difficult at School, because they were very negative towards me, and my behaviour declined as a result. I received various lunchtime detentions and even had a teacher block me in a small office shouting at me to ‘breathe’ during a panic attack. I could not get the support I needed from the NHS in an appropriate time frame, which consequently led to my parents having to pay for private treatment in order to help get me through my GCSEs.

“Since leaving school and college, I have become very passionate about helping other young people who are struggling with their mental health. I came to realise that the way I was treated in school was not ok and want to help other young people who are in a similar situation that I was in to help make sure they are given the treatment they deserve. I’ve been a volunteer for the education inquiry young people’s steering group which has been an incredible experience, being able to use my negative experiences to positively impact potential nationwide changes for the future.”

Speaking about his experience at school, Haleem, 20, Somerset said:

“When I started secondary school, I used to be a good kid, but at secondary school, I was often was sent out of class, and got into trouble, so then that’s what I became, ‘the bad kid’. I started using drugs and drinking alcohol as a way of coping with my mental health problems – because I didn’t understand mental health then or that my behaviour was down to me struggling with my mental health. By the age of 13 I was acting out more and started missing lessons, because I’d been branded as a bad kid, and I never got support for my mental health.

“It wasn’t until I started Sixth Form that I began learning about mental health and that there were better coping mechanisms than alcohol and drugs. I started seeing a psychiatrist when I was at Sixth Form. Although, the support I received was quite sporadic, I was thrown about to different teams. I think young people who have gone through the schooling system need to be involved in schools and training days and give their own opinions and ideas.”

Ella, 17, from East Sussex, has experienced emetophobia, OCD and other mental health problems since a child. She said:

“I have emetophobia and anxiety, I was also recently diagnosed with OCD and I found myself really struggling in the end of Year 10 and beginning of Year 11. I was constantly worried about contamination and was finding it hard to touch any surfaces and even eat or drink in school. The constant anxiety made it almost impossible to concentrate in lessons, but it was GCSE year, so my teachers’ main priority was my grades.

“I could be in a separate room during lessons, as long as I did my work, and I was given a leaflet about exam stress which obviously didn’t help. After a few weeks of Year 11 I refused to go back as I couldn’t function in the school environment. I also started struggling with self-harm and dark thoughts at this time. My school said I could work from home and they would send me the work and support me through emails so that I would still be able to do my GCSEs - however I didn’t hear from them as much as I needed to. I ended up having to buy textbooks and watch YouTube videos to teach myself my GCSE content, which was extremely difficult, especially while struggling with my mental health so much. Due to Covid19, I was then offered my predicted grades.

"I think it is really important that schools receive the training and information to be able to spot mental health conditions in students early on so that they can provide early intervention and teach us how to look after our own mental well-being. It would also make a huge difference if schools started to prioritise students' health and happiness over our attendance and grades."

Speaking about how secondary schools approach mental health problems in young people, David Stephenson, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at Mind, says:

“The prioritisation of academic achievement cannot be at the expense of mental wellbeing. As a young person struggling with your mental health, learning and taking part in school life can be a significant challenge. What you want is for someone to listen to you, try to understand what is happening and help you get the support you need. Our inquiry has found that this isn’t happening.

“We know that many teachers feel overstretched and work incredibly hard with limited resources. We are not asking teachers to be mental health professionals. However, we need to think again about how we address behaviour in schools, so those with the greatest need receive help, not punishment. There needs to be more support for schools to meet the needs of young people experiencing mental health problems and a radical rethink of discipline. We want to see the banning of isolation as a disciplinary measure, as this can contribute to poor mental health.

“The UK Government must also set out duties in legislation that require schools to report restrictive interventions. They must also take into consideration young people experiencing racism, which has gone unaddressed for too long. Our inquiry heard how racism significantly impacts young people’s mental health, yet the UK Government’s failure to require schools to report on racist incidents means the true scale of racism in schools remains unidentified and the full impact unknown.”

Dr Chris Tomlinson, CEO Co-op Academies Trust, who has recently worked with Mind to help promote mental health in their Schools, said,

“Young people have some of the greatest mental health needs and some of the worst experiences of support, which is why I’m pleased to see they are a particular focus of Mind’s work.

“Our Co-op Academies are committed to promoting good mental health amongst pupils and staff but we know there’s still more to do, so we’ll continue to raise the profile of mental health within the communities our academies belong to.

“We’re also currently running a programme about early prevention and intervention - and taking care of your mental health in the same way as you would your physical health. We know that young people can experience particular challenges at school which impact on mental health. These can include peer pressure, exam stress, and bullying, so it’s vital they are not left without support.”

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